VANCOUVER – As the great winger Paul McCartney wrote: Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. Get back, Demko.
Sir Paul didn’t actually write those last three words but would have if he were a Vancouver Canucks fan. The National Hockey League team has dearly missed starting goalie Thatcher Demko, but now he is coming back.
But what exactly is he getting back to?
Apart from returning to a smouldering wreck of a season for the Canucks, Demko is getting back to health, getting back to playing after suffering a lower-body injury on Dec. 1. But he is also trying to get back to being the elite goalie he was last season, which Demko certainly was not when he began this season by going 3-10-2 with a save percentage of .883.
He is also getting back to reality, declaring Tuesday after his second full practice with the Canucks that media conjecture that he wants out of Vancouver is categorically false.
“It was a little frustrating for me,” Demko said of speculation fueled by reports that other NHL teams have called the Canucks asking about the 27-year-old’s availability ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. “I’m not even here to defend myself. I’m out on the sidelines and start seeing that stuff popping up, but it’s not true. I’ll just say that point blank.
“I’ve seen a few things floating around but I’ve never said that, not even to my wife or anyone close to my circle. I have no idea where that started.”
Yes, well, welcome back.
Demko hadn’t spoken to the media since he was injured making a desperation save – a pre-requisite for Canuck goalies this season – in a Dec. 1 blowout loss against the Florida Panthers.
That injury, the most serious of his career, piled on to the poor start that followed off-season surgery that Demko has never detailed but insisted was “minor” and fairly routine for goaltenders.
There is no good time to get injured, but Demko’s derailment came just as his form was starting to turn and when the Canucks were about to need him the most.
Coach Bruce Boudreau was fired before Demko could get back and the goalie’s replacement as starter, Spencer Martin, eventually struggled so badly that he cleared waivers on Tuesday and was assigned to the Canucks’ AHL team in Abbotsford, B.C.
Callup Collin Delia is expected to start Wednesday against the New York Rangers. The Canucks have recalled minor-league goalie Arturs Silovs, who has been in excellent form in the American League, allowing just four goals in his last five appearances.
Demko told reporters that he hopes to back up Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers and start whenever new coach Rick Tocchet decides.
“It’s always tough losing a coach, especially when it’s a guy like Bruce,” Demko said. “The last few weeks there, I wasn’t able to help out. At a certain point, you’re playing for someone’s job, so I kind of felt. . . a little guilty almost. But obviously, this is where we’re at now and Toc’s got a plan and he’s got a new staff, and everyone’s willing to do what it takes to get this team moving in the right direction. And I think everyone’s on board with that.”
Demko has had only parts of three practices with teammates, but survived Tuesday’s edgy, remedial training session that followed Monday’s awful 6-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at Rogers Arena.
There was a lot of basic work done under Tocchet, whose last drill was spirited two-on-twos between two goals on opposite sides of the faceoff circle. At one point, Canucks star Quinn Hughes went back at Dakota Joshua after the power forward brought his hands high while throwing a check on the alternate captain.
“I think everyone’s edgy right now in general because of the way the season has gone,” Hughes said later. “For me, trying to be a leader now . . . I want everyone to get better. I need him to be the best he can be . . . including myself. I need all these guys to be as good as they can because right now we’re not getting enough from everyone.”
“It’s OK to make it uncomfortable with your teammates,” Tocchet said. “And then you go for lunch and you still love each other. But that’s competition. The (Sidney) Crosbys, the (Nathan) MacKinnons, those guys practise hard. They’re fighting against their teammates in a good way. We need that.”
Despite improved five-on-five play under Tocchet, the Canucks are 3-4-1 since the coaching change on Jan. 22 and have allowed a staggering 35 goals, largely because they haven’t been able to get enough saves or penalty kills. If he helps with the first thing, Demko will also help the second.
But he’d like another practice or two before he plays. He has missed 11 weeks.
“You’re probably never going to be fully confident to come back, no matter if I took a year to get ready,” Demko said. “There’s always going to be a little bit of some nerves there. There’s obviously scar tissue in the injury, but there’s also mental scar tissue when it comes to getting back out there. Breaking that down, it obviously helps getting in some team skates and getting some more chaotic looks and things like that. Overall, I’m just really excited to be back.
“Up to maybe even earlier this week, I was still processing each move. And that’s that mental scar tissue that I was talking about — just being able to trust yourself and trust the muscle and trust your biomechanics . . . to know that you’re safe. Today was definitely the best that I’ve felt as far as that goes.”
It’s too late for anyone to save the Canucks’ season. But Demko’s successful return, and the chance to work back towards the form that had him in Vezina Trophy conversations before this season, should be vital priorities for the organization between now and the end of their schedule in April.
There is a lot of getting back to do.
“For me, I can’t put too much thought into it,” Demko said. “I was 100 per cent present and committed to my rehab, and then taking the next step, I was 100 per cent committed to my practice time. At a certain point, you’ve just kind of got to let go of everything. I’m confident in the fact that I’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure that I’m in a good spot to come back and perform. Who knows how it’s going to go?
“Obviously, I’m a confident guy. I trust in my abilities as a player. But no one can sit here and tell you what the case is going to be. But I’m going to compete my ass off and see what happens.”
• Tocchet rewarded Vasily Podkolzin for his direct, robust play by elevating him to the top line in practice beside Elias Pettersson and Anthony Beauvillier. Checker Phil Di Giuseppe was promoted to a line with J.T. Miller and Conor Garland, while Joshua dropped back down to the fourth line. Wingers Andrei Kuzmenko and Brock Boeser skated on the third line with Sheldon Dries.